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Business Logic vs. Free Software Idealism - page 2

Building Friction?

  • May 27, 2008
  • By Bruce Byfield

Six months ago, the OLPC project was a poster-child for free software. The project received assistance from leading free software projects and companies, and its innovative software was widely regarded as an example of what free software could accomplish.

Even more importantly, free software's ethos of cooperation seemed well-matched to an effort that, as the Vision page on the site still says, was "an education project, not a laptop project." The fit seems so perfect that Richard M. Stallman, the founder of the Free Software Foundation, was considering switching over to an OLPC machine for his personal use.

In the last few months, though, this association has tarnished as the OLPC goal of distributing 150 million computers by the end of the year has appeared increasingly impossible. In an interview in March with BusinessWeek, OLPC founder Nicholas Negroponte is quoted as saying that, in the past, the project had operated "almost like a terrorist group" and needed to be managed "more like Microsoft." He also acknowledged that OLPC was looking for a CEO. About the same time, Negroponte announced that the project's XO computers would run a version of Windows--news that was recently confirmed.

While these events have been happening, OLPC has lost several key members, including Mary Lou Jepson, the cofounder and CTO; Walter Bender, head of software and content, and Ivan Krstic, director of security architecture. Both Bender and Krstic indicated that their resignations were over disagreements with the directions in which OLPC was heading. Jepson specifically denied such motivations, but the denial may have been more diplomatic than anything else.

In the general free software community, these events have been greeted with outrage. You don't have to search far on the Internet to find people suggesting that OLPC has used and abandoned the community, and that it is becoming simply another laptop manufacturer.

These reactions are somewhat exaggerated. After all,the OLPC still seems focused on its educational mission, and the original free software operating system will still be available alongside Windows on the next version of the XO.

However, they are understandable, both emotionally and in real-life terms. In equating the free software way of doing things with terrorists--however jokingly--Negroponte does seem to be repudiating the community that created the project. And in not only wanting to model the project on the fiercely competitive Microsoft but partnering with it, he confirms that he is doing exactly that.

Moreover, it is hard to see how Microsoft, with its orientation to profit and ruthless business practices, is compatible with the basic idealism with which OLPC was founder and previously operated. Making accessibility to the Internet even partially connected to a commercial company is simply the wrong message.

What Negroponte seems to be saying is that, if you are going to succeed, then cutthroat capitalism is the way to go--and to hell with free software idealism when you no longer need it.

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